Humor and Story Listening

Story Listening Basics

Story listening is a great use of class time that can both build student vocabulary and also help students learn about the culture(s) of your target language. In story listening, a teacher tells the class a story in the target language using a pictures, drawings and sometimes translations to convey the meaning. I use story listening to teach students about traditional Chinese stories and holidays, like the Empty Flowerpot and Mid-Autumn Festival. Another strategy that I like to use is Chinese is to tell students a humorous story. They students may not learn anything extra about Chinese culture, but they will still get valuable input in the language.

A Caveat about Humor

We know that language acquisition is a slow, ordered, and complex process. One of the last pieces of the puzzle to fall into the place is humor. Because there is such a huge cultural component to humor, it is possible to speak a second language with a high degree of proficiency without really “getting” the local jokes. So if I tell a funny story in class, it will have an American sensibility (and not a Chinese one necessarily), but that is okay. We can’t always do everything at once.

Why Humor Helps

Several years ago, I was on a tour bus in Vietnam. I was traveling alone, so I actually listened to the tour guide give his spiel. I noticed that he punctuated every fact and warning that he wanted to tell us with a joke. It occurred to me then that this was a good strategy to check if the people on the tour were paying attention. The same principle works for story listening. If the story is supposed to be funny, and no one laughs, then you can be sure that the audience did not understand.

An Example of a Story that Uses Humor

A story that I have used before in class is about how my father-in-law (a consummate bargain-hunter), once served a group of friends cat food by accident. The punch line of the story is the last line, I know that if the students laugh after they hear it, then they “get it.” Remember that comprehension of the input is a key part of language learning. If students don’t understand what the teacher says to them, they won’t learn. We can’t just turn on the radio and hope that we will learn language by osmosis.

photo of cat hiding in shame
Be sure to check the labels next time you think you are getting a good deal on people food!


More on story listening as a method:

From the grande dame of story listening herself, Beniko Mason

Story listening and Chinese


Story Listening with Mid-Autumn Festival

What is Mid-Autumn Festival?

This year (2018), Mid-Autumn festival falls on September 24. For Mid-Autumn Festival, we gather with our families, looks at the moon, and eat mooncakes. Mooncakes are the fruitcakes of Chine: a holiday-oriented dessert that some people love and some people love to hate. In China, companies give boxes of mooncakes as gifts to their employees. Even when I was a student, one year the university gave all the foreign students boxes of mooncakes (probably because we paid so much more in tuition than our Chinese counterparts:)). Like many traditional festivals in China, Mid-Autumn Festival has an associated legend. The legend of Chang’e, like many other traditional stories, can be a good basis for story listening.

photo of mooncakes from Mid-Autumn Festival
Mooncakes! Pictured are the popular Guangdong-style mooncakes. There are many other varieties available in China.

What is story listening?

In story listening, a teacher tells the class a story (often a legend or folktale), using pictures, gestures, and sometimes translation to help the students understand the story. The goal is for the students to fully understand the story. It is not necessary for them to be able to retell it in the target language, although that may be part of some lesson plans. Critics of story listening say that it is too teacher-centered. While the teacher usually does stand at the front of class and talk to the students, everything she does is oriented to their level. It is actually completely student-oriented.

The Legend of Chang’e and Houyi

A teacher can modify the telling of the legend of Chang’e and Houyi for students of various levels. One challenge for story listening is helping students keep track of the characters. Chang’e and Houyi are the main characters of the legend of Mid-Autumn Festival. I pre-print out illustrations of them to help with the story telling. Houyi is supposed to be a man of exceptional strength, so a photo of a muscly guy helps get the point across. There are several other characters that may be included in the telling of the legend, but to keep things simple for beginner students, I leave them out. There is something remembering names in a second language that is difficult. Having the character illustrations with the name illustrations really helps students keep track of who is who.

photo of white board from story listening lesson on Mid-Autumn Festival
Pictures of the characters help students keep track of who is in the story

Formative Assessment with Story Listening

After I tell the story, I want to make sure that the students understand pretty much everything that I said. There is a very easy way to do this. I just ask the students to repeat the story back to me in English. Lots of people believe that in a good language classrooms, students should use English as little as possible. I believe that classroom time is precious and students should get as much input as possible. Efforts to completely stamp out the use of English are misguided, however. Simply put, it is easier to ban English (or any other L1) than it is to ensure quality teaching. Furthermore, the goal for beginners is not to have them speaking Mandarin Chinese all the time. They can’t do it anyway. Rather, the goal is for them to understand everything that they hear. An easy, fast, an straightforward way to check for this is to have them summarize the story in English. If there are mistakes in the summary, then I know that I have not told the story in the best way for their level.

Teaching Culture with Story Listening

Story listening is great for teaching language, but it is also great for teaching culture. Folktales are great source material for story listening. Chinese culture certainly has many to choose from. Sometimes when traditional holidays roll around, the students are just not ready (either in terms of their language ability or their maturity) to listen to a folktale in Chinese. This is especially true for younger students. If one of the goals of a program is teaching about culture, it can be perfectly time to take a break from the language component and just focus on the culture. There are many books available in English that teach students about Mid-Autumn Festival. Teachers can use them to do a quick segment in English on that aspect of the culture.

More on Story Listening

Making illustrations to go with stories

Story listening and culture


Story Listening Part 2: Language and Culture


A Listening Activity That Teaches Culture Too

Language learning starts with good input. Students need to hear the target language, and understand its meaning, if they are going to be able to retain it for later use. Story listening is a great way to combine Mandarin listening with information about Chinese culture. Conveniently, Chinese culture is rich with stories that explain the origin of holidays and festivals, teach traditional values, and also explain the numerous Chinese sayings known as chengyu. There are hundreds of options to chose from for a story listening activity in Mandarin Chinese.

What is Story Listening?

Beniko Mason, a professor in Tokyo, developed story listening as a way to help her students learn English. Story listening involves using simple vocabulary, short sentences, pictures and occasional translation to tell a story. Mason originally told her students folktales using this method. Critics of story listening might say that it is too teacher-centered. True, the teacher is often at the front of the class talking to her students. This does not mean that this listening activity is teacher-centered, however. Rather, everything that she says is specifically tailored for her students’ comprehension.

The goal of story listening is not to have students learn every single word in the story by heart. It is important to note that language learning is a slow, piecemeal process. Story listening is just one way to give students the comprehensible input that they need as part of this process. If chosen carefully, students will get both the language input that they need in order to learn and some cultural knowledge.

Story Listening in Mandarin Chinese

With 5,000 years of history, Chinese civilization is a rich source of myths, folktales, origin stories and more. By using these stories as a basis for a story listening activity, a lesson becomes a two-for-one. Students get both the input in Mandarin that they need to learn the language, and they also learn about the culture. The story of the cowherd and the weaving girl explains the origin of Qixi (Chinese Valentine’s Day). The story of the Empty Flower Pot (link to English version of the story) is a good jumping off point for discussing cultural values.

The Empty Flower Pot

The key to making story listening a beneficial and enjoyable for the students it to make sure the language is pitched right to their level. For example, in telling the story of The Empty Flower Pot to beginners, the teacher should repeat key structures frequently. Beginner students should hear the verb “to have” used in context many, many times so they can acquire this structure and use it themselves. Working with the story of the Empty Flower Pot, a teacher can say: “The king did not have a child. He did not have a child. Did the king have a child? No, he did not have a child.”

Looking at this in English, the story seems a bit boring and repetitive, but this is exactly the type of language that students need to hear in order to learn. It does not seem boring to them. On the contrary, this type of storytelling holds their attention because they can easily follow along.


photo of white board from story listening activity
In story listening, a teacher explains new words with photos, drawings, and sometimes translations.

Chinese Valentine’s Day

Using a story such as the origin story of Qixi (Chinese Valentine’s Day) can be challenging. The story uses many words that are not very common. How often do we talk about cowhers, the Milky Way, spirits and weavers in our everyday lives? Probably not very often. To make this story appropriate for story listening, especially at the beginner levels, teachers need to tell it with frequently used words. “He likes her” and “she likes him” are good phrases to repeat with this story. “To like” is one of the super seven words and the phrase is appropriate for the story. As long as the focus is on more common structures like this one, the story will be a good use of class time.

Recently, I’ve begun to tell a story only, to have the students tell me that they already know it. This really is not a problem. If students already know the story in English, they will have an easier time understanding it in Mandarin Chinese. Furthermore, this can be a jumping off point for further discussion. After the students hear the story in Mandarin Chinese, the teacher can ask how each version is different. As with everything that we do in class, comprehension is the goal. Knowing the story already actually just makes it easier.

An article from Language Magazine on how story listening works to help students acquire a second language is here.

Check out a previous post on story listening.

The Curse of Knowledge and Mandarin Learning

What is the curse of knowledge?

Teachers have “the curse of knowledge.” We tend to assume that our students know much more than they actually do. For Mandarin teachers, this means that we assume that our students can understand much more than they really do. The curse of knowledge leads to bad outcomes for the students because teachers do not give them the comprehensible input that they need. Students do best when they understand 100% of the words that their teachers use. The challenge for teachers in a good Mandarin Chinese class is not to have fun games, cool crafts or any other activity to keep students engaged. It is for teachers to speak Mandarin in a way that the students understand.

The Curse of Knowledge and Class Content

I wrote about story listening earlier here and here. Story listening is a language teaching method developed by Professor Beniko Mason, a English professor in Tokyo. In story listening, a teacher tells her students a story using pictures, gestures, and definitions to make sure that students “get it.” Where does the curse of knowledge come in? It means that teachers have to question all of their assumptions about what the students know. For example, when telling the story of Mulan, it is safe to assume that students know the basic plot. It is also safe to assume that students know the name Mulan. When teaching the story of “Butterfly Lovers,” however, teacher should assume that kids do not know the plot. It does not have its own Disney movie :). Telling a story to language learners is not the same as telling it to native speakers. The storyteller must speak more slowly, use shorter sentences, and use only known vocabulary.

Trade the Authentic Materials for Comprehensible Materials

The curse of knowledge makes teachers think that something is easier than it really is. Teachers have to constantly check themselves to make sure they are using language that the students can understand. Even a slight variation can confuse students. Some educators think it is important to “challenge” the students. Many teachers believe that using authentic materials (meant for native speakers) will keep students engaged. In fact, the opposite is true. Authentic materials often use low-frequency words and are simply too difficult for beginners. Students don’t pay attention if they can’t understand. Authentic materials can often make students lose interest.

The curse of knowledge makes teachers think that a children’s book in the target language will be easy for students. They think, “Oh this is for kids. I think it is very easy, so it must be appropriate for kids.” In fact, beginner students need material that is specific for them. The best materials use high-frequency words that the students know, or can easily pick up from a gesture or a drawing. In the beginning, a story for novice students is going to be very different than one for native speakers. If teachers do not highly modify their the story (or reading), it will easily be too hard for the students. If the students are not engaged, they will learn very little.

photo of excerpt from Monkey king book
This book is for language learners. It has a limited vocabulary. It is appropriate for intermediate students.
excerpt from Geronimo Stilton in Chinese
This is a page from Geronimo Stilton in Chinese. It is for native speakers, so will be too difficult for beginner or intermediate students.

Making Story Illustrations in Mandarin

Making Illustrations for Stories

Lots of language teachers who focus on providing comprehensible input to students, do not like forced output. Forced output happens when teachers pressure students to speak or write in the target language before they are ready. I want to see and hear Mandarin words just fall out of students mouths. I don’t want to pretend to be a baker and push a student to ask me for a loaf of bread. Those types of language classes do not work. Focusing on giving students language that they can understand does not mean that there is no room during class for students to participate actively. We just have to be careful about what we ask the students to do. One activity that I like to do with students is to have them make illustrations for a story that I tell them.

Is Storytelling Too Teacher-Centered?

Thanks to some inspiration from another blog about teaching Mandarin Chinese, I have done some story listening recently. Story listening is when the teacher tells the students a story using lots of picture, gestures, and words the students know. Using these ingredients means that the students get lots of comprehensible input. Recently I have done the story of Mulan with my younger students. It takes a lot of work to edit the story so that I only use words and phrases that they understand. Ultimately, this is what teachers have to do to make sure that the story is comprehensible to the students, however.

Story listening activities seems very teacher-centered at first blush. In story listening, the teacher stands at the front of the classroom and the students listen to her. It does not seem very student-centered. In fact, every word the teacher says and everything she does is tailored for the students. It is 100% student-centered, but it just looks teacher-centered. Still, many parents and administrators want to see students actually do something.

Activities that Do Not Force Output

Again, we do not want to force output. Kids should create with language because it feels natural and enjoyable. Teachers should not put kids on the spot by asking them to use language in ways that they are not comfortable with yet. It would be too much to ask my students to re-tell the story that they learn through story listening. Instead, I ask them to illustrate the story as we go along. First, they hear the story at least once through regular story listening, then we do the illustrations.

How It Works

Each child gets one part (often just a sentence) of the story to illustrate. I give them one minute to make their drawing on the white board. This keeps the pace moving fairly quickly. While each child is drawing, I repeat that part of the story. If appropriate, we read the characters for that part of the story, too. By making the illustrations, students engage in the story in a different way. The drawings also show that they understand the story. It is a quick and easy comprehension check.

Keeping Input in Mind

The main focus of a language class should be to give students comprehensible input. Students may seem passive in classes, but they are not. Their brains are slowly but surely  building up knowledge of Mandarin Chinese. Output activities, like making illustrations, can be a beneficial part of class. Teachers just need to be careful about using them. Making illustrations is fun for students and is evidence that the students “get it” for the teacher.